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As big as all outdoors

Tamer pursuits

Having Fun


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"As big as all outdoors. . ."

Some sportsmen prefer the great outdoors to the gridiron or baseball diamond, and Pennsylvania certainly offers plenty of natural attractions to satisfy them! Whether leisure-time activities include hunting, hiking, or biking on trails – or simply enjoying the variety of museums and animal habitats that are located around the state – shaking the dust of the city off one's shoes is a popular way to spend free time.

The region's rivers offer endless opportunities for water sports which was quite a change from Pittsburgh's earlier days. At the turn of the century, industry left the rivers so polluted that they were a significant environmental and health hazard. In fact, during Pittsburgh's heyday of factories, the Monongahela River was the busiest inland waterway in the world.

Photo of 1900 Regatta
Collection of Susan Donley
A Regatta on the Mon, c 1900. Steamers line up for the race while spectators watch from barges.

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Thanks to serious clean-up efforts during a period referred to as Pittsburgh's Renaissance I and II, the rivers now are clean and wildlife is thriving both in and around the waters. In the downtown area, development along the riverfront is quite different than it was in the days when manufactories and ship-building companies lined the shores. Instead of steam boats and coal barges, Pittsburghers see pleasure crafts and water-skiers . . . and, yes, the occasional coal barge that still shares the waters with them! Biking and hiking trails are a part of Pittsburgh's City Plan. Trails are being developed on the sites of the old railroad tracks around the area. You can see Pittsburghers out walking, biking, and even skateboarding whenever the weather permits. The trails are considered a part of the city's transportation network. Someday soon you will be able to ride a bicycle into town from the outlying areas.

Photo of Three Rivers Heritage Trail Susan Donley
A view on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail on the North Shore of the Allegheny River.

Along the rivers' edges, in areas further outside the city, many docks house privately owned boats, many of which carry fishermen up and down the water in search of trout and carp, just to name a few. In addition to our rivers, many of the region's lakes and creeks provide plentiful opportunities for fishermen, as well. And Pennsylvania's vast wooded areas provide game for those who choose hunting as their sport.

One of Pennsylvania's more famous roadside attractions is in Pymatuning, where a spillway to Pymatuning Lake attracts record numbers of carp. Since 1930, this well-aerated spillway has attracted huge carp. . . huge because they are so well-fed! Tourists flock to the area to see the fish, and throw plenty of bread to them in the process.

Photo of Reyna Foods, Strip District

Rick Sebak

Pymatuning Lake's incredible carp (above) on whose back the ducks walk (below)!

For those nature-lovers more attracted to reptiles than to fish, Allenwood, PA, is the home of Clyde Peelings Reptile Land, a specialized zoo in operation since 1954. And if you prefer fowl to fish and reptiles, the National Aviary is located on Pittsburgh's North Side, housing everything from egrets to eagles. This Aviary serves as the nation's premiere collection of birds, and exerts a majority of its efforts on preservation and rehabilitation of endangered bird species.

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Tamer pursuits

Maybe you're less of a Sports Nut and more of a Couch Potato. Some people prefer the, well, more leisurely interpretation of the word "leisure." To them, curling up with a good book, tuning into talk radio, or flipping through a hundred different TV channels is the way to make the most of free time.

Of course, the first "couch potatoes" weren't sitting on a couch, but perhaps sitting around a campfire. Storytelling was a treasured tradition, and for centuries it was the best "show" in the house! Native Americans perfected the craft when no formal written language existed, retelling the events of the day as well as passing on the legends and beliefs of their ancestors. Today, storytelling still is a popular "show" whether it includes ghost stories around a camp fire or family folk tales around the fireplace.

But the personal art of storytelling has seen much competition from electronic media is the last half of the 20th century. Pittsburgh, in particular, is focused on radio and television, as it has the distinction of claiming many "firsts" and pioneering the industries in their infancy. It claims KDKA as the first radio station; KDKA TV's precursor, the old Dumont Network, as the first television station; and WQED TV as the first public television station in the country.

In the late 1950's, one local TV station, WTAE TV, hosted a children's television program well-remembered by people in the city. "Ricki and Copper" was a half-hour children's program hosted by Pittsburgher Ricki Wertz . . . and many adults who still live in this region can happily recall either appearing on the program, or eagerly tuning in to it each morning. For about a decade, Ricki and her Golden Retriever, "Copper," welcomed to the TV studio area children celebrating their birthdays. The children sang, shared jokes, and enjoyed "musical" performances by Copper (who, in truth, was doing more howling more than singing). In an age before individuals felt entitled to "fifteen minutes of fame," appearing on "Ricki and Copper" was a momentous honor, and a huge family affair. Parents, siblings, grandparents, et al, felt privileged to join their children on the studio set for the final song and good-bye parade.

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And there was the popular Pittsburgh radio show "Party Line," hosted by Ed and Wendy King on KDKA Radio. "Party Line" was first and foremost a call-in show -- but compared to today's era of talk radio, filled with contentious callers and outrageous hosts, "Party Line" would hardly be recognized as the same breed of animal!

"Party Line," you see, was a call-in talk show but no one could hear the callers except for the show hosts! Ed and Wendy King would summarize callers' questions and comments, and manage to keep the good times going for everyone listening in at home. And the format was indeed like a party, filled with everything from banter and unusual topics to recipe exchanges and good-natured quizzes. Each night there was a special question called the Pretzel.

Wendy King claims she was not originally intended to be a co-host on the show, but she accompanied her husband to the radio studio one evening and eventually started to comment on some of the topics being discussed. It was a fortuitous move, one that turned "Party Line" with Ed and Wendy King into a radio hit for the next 21 years! The program continued on KDKA TV until Ed's death in 1971.

Another long-running radio tradition in Pittsburgh is KQV Radio. From the early 60s until the mid-1970s, the station broadcast from a downtown studio that had street-level windows. Those windows became knows as the Showcase Studio Windows, and KQV, the hip top-40 station at that time, drew a crowd on the street that would watch the show in progress. A common on-air joke was that the studio was located on the corner of "Walk" and "Don't Walk," a reference to the pedestrian traffic signals at that intersection.

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KQV's DJ's were called the Fun Lovin' Five, and they broadcast 24-hours-a-day from just inside their Showcase Studio Windows. There was a big rivalry between KQV and that KDKA-Radio down at Gateway Center, especially when the Beatles arrived in the United States in 1964. Over the years, the station changed. Its FM counterpart, WDVE -- with the old "Love format" so in contrast to today's rock format – took over one of the windows on Smithfield Street. Before the end of 1975, KQV had changed to an all-news format, which continues to this day.

Radio and TV were – and still are – popular leisure-time diversions. Another pop art entertainment form that was not as lucky to withstand the test of time was the drive-in movie show. Pittsburgh was often considered a center of drive-ins, with over 40 in the greater Pittsburgh area, but most of them have closed. During the 1950's and 1960's, however, the "drive-in" movie experience was an entertainment culture unto itself!

The first drive-in in the Pittsburgh area was the old South Park Drive-In on Route 88 in Bethel Park. Built in 1939, it even had curtains for a while that helped hide the screen from passing motorists. The South Park Drive-In closed in August of 1985 when the place was mobbed with drive-in fans lamenting the slow death of this nostalgic entertainment form.

Up on Route 30 in North Versailles, passersby can still see where the Blue Dell Drive-In was. The empty screen is still there, and beside it is the site of the old Blue Dell Diner. Just below that are the crumbling ruins of the Blue Dell Swimming Pool. This triple Blue Dell complex -- pool, diner and drive-in theatre -- was owned by the Warren family. Their first drive-in theatre was the "Super 30" on Route 30 near Irwin. They eventually built, owned and operated 7 drive-ins in the region, and the "Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In," also on Route 30, just east of the Westinghouse Bridge, still plays a double bill on each of its five screens every night in the warm months.

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With the sad lack of drive-ins in the region, people in search of entertainment have turned to the mega-movie-plexes that mark the suburbs. Of course, plenty of other options exist for the performing arts in Western Pennsylvania. Downtown Pittsburgh's Cultural District centers around the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts and Heinz Hall. The abundance of area universities present many opportunities for music, dance and theatrical performances.

Segregation was a sad fact of American history, and the sports arena was far from the only battleground. In fact, racism prompted the region's Black community to found many of its own amusements. While the Miss Pittsburgh Pageant took place at Kennywood Amusement Park's segregated swimming pool, residents of Pittsburgh's Hill District held their own beauty pageant, sponsored by the Black Professional Association. The week-long event ended in a swimsuit competition and talent show. By far, the largest leisure event in the Hill District was its annual summer picnic. In the 1940's, the picnic offered games, races, prize drawings, big band concerts and talent shows.

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Big band and jazz music ranked as an incredibly popular entertainment outlet for residents of the Hill. Clubs offered big-name talent, including icons such as Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington. The community's music scene took on the atmosphere of New York's Harlem, and in fact, Pittsburgh was known as the place for music between New York and Chicago.

Photo of Reyna Foods, Strip District
Archive of Industrial Society, Hillman Library
Wylie Avenue in its jazz club heyday in the 1940s.

Art intended to transcend race and celebrate diversity was housed one of the region's most historic arts institutions, which still stands on the same site where it first opened its doors as the Carnegie Institute back in 1895. Now knows as The Carnegie, it houses a library, art gallery, music hall, and museum within its massive stone walls, a gift to the city from the 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

For those who prefer a less high-brow outlet for their entertainment, each and every neighborhood has its counterpart to the well-known television pub "Cheers" – (a place where everyone knows your name). Some claim outlandish histories, like Tramp's downtown, which not only used to be a "house of ill repute" but also maintains that it was the site of a ghoulish murder that spawned a ghost that was said to roam the premises for the next one hundred years. Today, Tramp's operates under new ownership and a new name – although workers there claim that the ghost remains!

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Some areas are famous for their pubs, clubs and gathering places, and each one caters to a particular crowd. Some regions are defined by the ethnic groups that have settled in the area and now maintain cultural entities and ethnic restaurants. The North Side reflects the heritage of its German residents in restaurants, while Squirrel Hill has many of the restaurants and community organizations that echo its large Jewish population.

Other areas are defined not so much by the ethnic group but by the demographic that has clustered in the region, influencing the stores, eateries, and nightclubs that line its streets. Pittsburgh's South Side has a reputation for attracting college crowds out to party, while Shadyside caters to the young professional crowd reflective of its residents. And Pittsburgh's Strip District – which 200 years ago served as the break-bulk district for goods that would eventually travel by boat to other US cities further west – is today home to the city's hottest nightclubs, trendy restaurants, and eclectic bars. It is a popular tourist destination, rivaled only by Station Square, Pittsburgh's one-time railroad station on the South Side that today serves as a collection of restaurants and boutiques with high tourist appeal.

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